“These placemats,” a man standing in the garage of my childhood Los Angeles home said firmly.
It was early in the morning, and I didn’t entirely comprehend his point.
He brandished the placemats in my best friend’s direction. “These placemats are used.”
She and I looked at each other, bewildered. After a careful pause, she addressed him.
“Sir, this is a garage sale. Everything here is used.”
My father had died a few weeks earlier, and now, emerging from the haze of having the person I loved most leave the world (during the December holidays, no less), it was time to turn my energies toward his home of 20-plus years, and also to the sheer amount of stuff contained within. I’d never really thought about most of it—the couch was a couch, the dining room table a table, and everything in the kitchen served the function of… whatever kitchen stuff does.
I now saw it all differently: I liked the ritual of coming home and hanging things in the armoire in my bedroom, but suddenly I was evaluating it with a new set of questions. How much might someone pay for it? How many people would it take to lift? I couldn’t have named the feelings this process shook loose, but I was slowly detaching from the idea that this home was my home, because without not just my father but all the things with which he’d furnished and stocked the house, it wasn’t.
My dad loved to give things away, and was forever working to rid the house of clutter, but still, 20 years is a long time. Naturally, once I’d started to identify what might be valuable (the most dad-like object, a Civil War-themed edition of the board game Stratego, packaged in a handsome wooden box with its own table) and what might be sentimental (a collection of coffee cups reflecting travels and sports team loyalty), there was a lot left. Dishes, shoes, dolls—things that reflected his life and my childhood but that nonetheless had no utility in this next chapter.
So we had a yard sale.
My mother, who’d held a yard sale or two in her day, had a list of helpful suggestions—have plenty of $1 bills, keep all the merchandise in your sight line, always be willing to bargain.
It all seemed fairly straightforward, except: My parents, though still close friends, had been divorced for many years. I was my father’s only child, and he never remarried. Everything in the house belonged to me, which meant it also fell to me to determine its worth.
There were dolls (I didn’t remember playing with them and, if we’re being honest, they looked haunted), a television (never opened, purchased on Black Friday one year), underwear (also never opened, and still bearing the Bloomingdale’s sticker that told me it had been bought just months before my dad died). I quickly realized the items I was trying to sell belonged to two distinct categories. The first was my own childhood detritus, which was shockingly easy to part with. At the yard sale, I sold an American Girl doll (Samantha) for way less than I could’ve gotten on eBay, a tiny pair of cowboy boots, a stack of hardcover novels.
But the rest of the sale was different. It included things my dad clearly used and loved on a regular basis, and in many cases bought again because he loved them so much. T-shirts from the Gap, in some cases inexplicably dry-cleaned. Scented candles, an indulgence he’d picked up in middle age, many of them sold to a guy who needed to decorate the set of a friend’s movie, which we foolishly forgot to get the name of. Two pairs of white Converse Chuck Taylors never taken out of the box. He got them on sale, he’d told me, and they’d be good to have “just in case.” At the time, I thought he meant “just in case” one of his other pairs wore out, but now I wonder if he knew something neither of us did until the near end—that the “just in case” scenario might be one in which he died and I was worried about money.
I liked the idea of turning trash into treasure. What I hadn’t counted on was selling things that weren’t actually trash. Yes, the aforementioned placemats were kind of threadbare, but my dad was fanatical about keeping things clean and he loved to set them out on the table before I sat down to eat on visits home, teasing me about remaining tidy. Maybe, I thought, he would’ve used the TV at some point. He’d often joked about wanting to leave behind as few possessions as possible, largely so that I wouldn’t be forced to do exactly what I was doing in having the yard sale. Still, I didn’t feel burdened by what was left behind. Overwhelmed, maybe, but not burdened. Two years later, I look around my own apartment and think, when choosing what stays and what goes, about what use the things I own might have to someone else.
The morning quickly turned into afternoon, and in truth, everything moved too fast for me to get lost in the sadness of it all. At one point, I dropped the money envelope, scattering ones and fives across the garage floor; a pair of friendly women looking through a pile of clothes helped me pick it up and then good-naturedly admonished me for being so careless. My friend and I giggled about the placemat man, reminding each other that technically, not everything for sale was used—the aforementioned underwear, and an unopened As-Seen-on-TV Vidalia Chop Wizard, which I ended up keeping.
I made a few hundred bucks in the end, and told myself it was good to send things I didn’t need off into the world to go to work somewhere else. I still don’t know whether or not I believe that, but I do hope the placemats are keeping someone’s table clean.
Angela Serratore is a writer based in New York City. Her work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Lapham’s Quarterly, Smithsonian, and more.